Sharansky: Anti-Semitism not our main ally in the Zionist cause

Jewish Agency head to 'Post': Building Jewish identity is job 1.

July 7, 2013 08:28
Natan Sharansky speaks at the Babi Yar ravine.

Natan Sharansky speaks at the Babi Yar ravine 370. (photo credit: Sam Sokol)

Natan Sharansky believes that Jews should not “see anti-Semitism as our main ally in the Zionist cause.”

Interviewed by The Jerusalem Post while being driven through the streets of Kiev on a bus packed with delegates to the most recent Jewish Agency board of governors meeting – held in the Ukrainian capital to show solidarity with the local community against the ascendent far-right Svoboda party – Sharansky and agency director-general Alan Hoffman weighed in on why building Jewish identity is the most crucial task for the Jewish people and how to stop what they say is a growing rift between Israel and the Diaspora.

“Everybody who wants to live today in the Ukraine is not scared by anti-Semitism,” he explained. “Anybody who wants to come and live in Israel” is not doing so out of fear, he said, but rather out of convictions borne of education and Jewish engagement.

In fact, he said, anti-Semitism in the “free world is not a factor.”

While he admits that there are a “few islands” where it is a factor – a recent report by the Jewish People Policy Institute indicated that almost half of Jews in Belgium, France and Hungary have considered emigration – anti-Semitism is driving more Jews away from their identity than it is attracting.

The situation today is different from the time when Israel and Zionism were the “main answer” to anti-Semitism, he averred. “Today, in this global village, the real drive to making aliya can only be strengthening Jewish identity.

Sharansky believes that contemporary man, who is “without identity,” can be motivated by the desire to find his roots, his family and his connection to the past and with the future.

The attraction of Israel is that it can provide existential meaning, a feeling that “there are some things that are more important to you than simply physical survival.”

“In the free world where we have the overwhelming majority of Jews, it’s not anti-Semitism which is encouraging them to make aliya. It’s the discovery of their identity, and we have to look for more and more ways to help them look,” he said.

That desire to inculcate a Jewish identity and ethic into the Jews of the Diaspora is one that Hoffman shares. The former director of the agency’s education department, Hoffman was raised to his current chief executive role three years ago.

He asserted that the agency’s current focus on community-building and the strengthening of identity is not necessarily a change in his organization’s core mission.

“First of all, this is not a transition from aliya. The paradigm already shifted more than a decade ago. The Jewish Agency was created to deal with the most urgent and important issues that face world Jewry,” which can only be addressed by “acting collectively.” Among the issues with which the Jewish Agency has dealt, he said, have been the creation of the State of Israel – the agency having served as the state’s government-in-waiting during the time of the Mandate – and aliya.

Three million Jews have thus far come to Israel under the aegis of the agency, he says. However, in each generation the organization has “taken on the national priority that the Jewish people needs to deal with” and it is now Sharansky’s view, he said, that “there’s a lot of agreement that the single biggest issue facing Jewish life is not Jewish identity – it’s the Jewish future.”

“It’s the connection of the next generation of young Jews living outside of Israel to Israel as a core part of their identity, and the connection of young Jews living in Israel to the Jewish people,” he explained. “We are at the end of the epoch of aliya of rescue.”

There are not more than “60,000 Jews living anywhere in the world today” who could require rescue in the future, he said.

“Who is going to make the decision to make aliya?” he asked. “People who have been connected to Israel a core part of their identity.”

That is why, aside from obvious issues of assimilation and intermarriage that are of concern to organized Jewry, the Jewish Agency seems to have an interest in community- building. According to Hoffman and Sharansky, without what Hoffman terms a spiral or ladder of Israel engagement, young Jews will simply not have the impetus to emigrate to the Jewish state.

“Aliya has remained constant, but the most interesting thing is if you go and look at the aliya data year after year, a greater percentage of olim are young people who have been [involved] in some way in the spiral of engagement with Israel – meaning they may have gone to summer camps or day schools.”

The job of the Jewish Agency today, he said, is to “get more and more young Jews on a spiral in which we bring Israel to them in the places where they live, and we bring them to Israel.”

Stating that it would be presumptuous for the agency to subsidize Jewish education in North America, Hoffman said that the organization is working on creating a “ladder of Israeli experience and a ladder of engagement in local communities.”

Citing Toronto, Canada as an example, Hoffman said that in every Reform and Conservative synagogue in the city there is now a “shin shin,” a Hebrew acronym for “shnat sherut,” or a person involved in a year of community service.

There are already 100 such emissaries but Hoffman says that if bureaucratic barriers relating to the deferment of military service could be overcome, “we could have 1,000 young Israelis doing a year of service like that.” These young agency emissaries, mostly post-high school students on a temporary military deferment, have been making a difference in two ways.

“It has a double mission,” he said. “Number one, this program brings Israel to the young Jews of the Reform and Conservative communities... and the federation has funded this because it sees itself as a way to be the nerve center of the engagement of Israel and the community.”

However, beyond the obvious Israel boosting, such engagement also has a positive effect on the Israeli emissaries.

“These young Israelis, when they come back after a year living in the Jewish world, they’re transformed in terms of the way they see their connection” to the Jewish people abroad.

“Every year, there is more and more research which shows young Israelis feel disconnected from their brothers and sisters outside of Israel,” and the Jewish Agency’s program, he said, is “connecting young Jews to Israel as part of their Jewish identity, and connecting young Israelis to Jewish people.”

The Jewish community in Israel, he said, is “apathetic to world Jewry.”

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